The Cimarron Banks
To compose her latest album, veteran singer-songwriter Amy Annelle stole away to a cabin in the lonely Cimarron Valley, a desolate region of Oklahoma that lies on the western fringe of No Man’s Land. The time-tested approach of self imposed isolation has resulted in more than a few classic albums, from Bob Dylan’s reluctant Woodstock output to more recent underground success stories like Devendra Banhart’s masterstroke Rejoicing In The Hands and Bon Iver’s celebrated For Emma, Forever Ago. Annelle emerged from her retreat with The Cimarron Banks, a semi-concept album that, while achingly beautiful at times, usually relies on subtle production touches to keep it from losing momentum.
As an album, The Cimarron Banks is solid, well recorded with an eye for fine details. With a few exceptions, the arrangements are consistent throughout, strong but understated, settling comfortably in a plaintive, relaxed folk-pop sound... think Laurel Canyon-in-the-early-70’s, peppered with modern indie flourishes like organ swells and vocal delays. Throw in a penchant for occasional lo-fi detours, and you’ve got all the makings of a modern underground folk record, one that tries to feel conceptually cohesive, yet retain a sense of variety and adventure.
Annelle is a gifted and confident singer. Tonally, she is at her most affecting in her lower range, and her haunting, tempered vibrato sounds wonderful on the title track, as well as closer “Streaking With The Lightning”. “Harden Your Blades” is a satisfying exploration of moody, spectral folk, a stirring blend of finger-picked guitar, spare piano, and tasteful vocal effects.
The downside to Annelle’s more reticent moments is the tendency for her phrases to smear lazily into one another, the clarity of the lyrics usually getting sacrificed in the process… it’s a problem that crops up all over the album, and songs like “Carrion Dream”, “Ode To A Lone Bird” and “Wounded Man” begin to blur together, though “Wounded…” benefits from the unexpected addition of some quasi-Mariachi trumpets. It’s production details like these that regularly swoop in to excite the material on Banks, whether it’s the processed, ethereal harmonies of “The Nightjar’s Blues” or the clipping vocal distortion on “Miss It More Than You Know How”.
Annelle’s busy yet somewhat aimless melodic sensibility seems to be the thing keeping many of these tracks from being true standouts, though a few of the quirkier numbers have a fighting chance. The jaunty piano of “The Hellhound’s Address” features an animated melody that bears more than a passing resemblance to songstress-of-the-moment Joanna Newsome, while “Wake Up Little Dark Eyes” possesses an indie-pop edge just begging for a soundtrack appearance (Juno 2, perhaps?) These tracks might just have the legs for AAA radio play, or maybe an iPod commercial… it might not be what Annelle had in mind, but it’s a testament to their more universal appeal, not to mention a little welcome levity in this somewhat heavy collection of songs. (High Plains Sigh) (Raymond Morin)